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Your Commute Is Killing You (slate.com)
126 points by kmfrk on May 28, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 85 comments

I used to commute from Santa Maria to Santa Barbara, which is a beautiful 70 minute drive but it quickly wore me down.

I called up the county car pool number and got set up with three other people to start a car pool and I can't say enough good things about that experience: it's very therapeutic, like having your daily support group. It also forces you to be efficient with your time because you always leave at a fixed time. Most employers and coworkers won't give you a hard time because you're doing the "right" thing.

On days I couldn't car pool (rare) I listened to books on tape. My favorite was "Tale of two cities."

I'm glad those days are over, though, now I have a 20 min bike ride along the Willamette.

Wait a second. This article pivots on a fulcrum of crap. I've read hundreds of articles that mistake correlation with causation, but never one so brazen as to straight up interchange the words:

"[Commuting] correlates with an increased risk of obesity, divorce, neck pain, stress, worry, and sleeplessness."

"Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia."

One of my first questions was whether some people with long commutes had them because they were 'B' or 'C' candidates with limited career options. If that's the cause of some of the long commutes, it'd explain many of the other factors nicely.

So you're arguing that obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia cause long commutes? Or that some factor causes both? What might that be?

I'm suspicious of this sort of research for lots of reasons, but concerns about the direction of causality is pretty low on my list in this case.

"So you're arguing that obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia cause long commutes? Or that some factor causes both? What might that be?"

Poor decision making skills. Excepting possibly neck pain (and even then I could work it in), that could underlie them all, and there's a certain amount of evidence to suggest things like willpower and discipline exist as at least statistically-distinct entities, even if you can't quite point at the willpower organ.

It's probably being poor, which also correlates with worse working environments. Remember, "drive until you qualify."

No, he's saying just because they correlate doesn't mean they cause one another (in either direction) at all. But the articles claims otherwise.

It means precisely that A causes B, B causes A, C causes both A and B, or the correlation is a statistical fluke. It is intellectually important to be aware of all the options. But "correlation does not imply causation" can be too much of a reflex reaction.

In this particular case, it's easy to imagine how a long commute could cause obesity, divorce, and neck pain; it's very hard to imagine how the causality could run the other way, or what a common cause might be.

The rule could stand to be taken with a grain of common sense.

"it's very hard to imagine how the causality could run the other way, or what a common cause might be."

On the contrary, a (mind that: possible) common cause is even suggested in the article itself: "Perhaps long-distance commuters tend to be poorer or less educated, both conditions that make divorce more common."

No, it could also mean that types of people who A also tend to B, or types of people who C also tend to A and B, and so on.

Correlation != causation.

It is never wrong to refuse to attempt to have an insight.

It is not right either. It is just boring.

Correlation is a starting point, not an ending point.

I switched from a 45-50 minute commute in bad traffic and tons of construction to a job with a <10 minute commute. Despite it being less pay and more hours I stayed for many many years. Those first few months after the switch were amazingly different. Now my commute is less than 5 minutes and I still want to move closer! I don't understand how people survive some of the punishing commutes I hear about. Life is to short to hate your job, it's also to short to hate getting to and from it!

"I don't understand how people survive some of the punishing commutes I hear about."

I have a 30-40 minute commute each way from the burbs to SF.

I end up reading interesting books, sketching ideas, or sometimes pop out the laptop to do some quick work.

The savings on rent by living in the 'burbs is a decent tradeoff for having more expendable income for my hobbies.

Exactly. With my current gig, I have a 60 minutes train commute (Paris has relatively good public transportation, apart from the strikes ;) ). This allows me to read a lot of books.

I have a hard time reading at home, with so many distractions (computer/internet being the main one). If I were to reduce my commute, I fear I wouldn't read as much.

Maybe I'm just rationalizing my long commute, though. I should look into living closer to work, and deliberately blocking distraction-free time for reading at home, on a comfortable couch. But it would cost me 700€/month more than my current arrangement, and I don't know where my next gig will be located.

my time on the train is some of my favorite time. if i had to commute by car, i'd hate it, though

I've been a full-time bike commuter for about 15 years now. I love it, and couldn't imagine driving to work.

That said, I don't mind taking the bus sometimes because it does give me time to think, write, or read. The only thing I don't like about it is being beholden to a schedule.

I'm a bike commuter as well and I love it. Been doing it for about 9 years now. The first 2 years it was a 40 minute bike ride each way. After that I got another job and moved which resulted in a 15 minute ride each way.

Funny thing is I kind of miss the longer commute. Sometimes after work I will take an extra 30 minutes on my bike by taking the long way home. How many times do you hear a car commuter say that?

My current door-to-door commute is about 10 minutes. Most of that is spent waiting for elevators. I'm often late, strangely enough.

Previously I had a 30 minute each way commute by bike, with most of it along a river. I really miss that commute. Watching the seasons change, the different critters come and go, riding faster than the commuters stuck in traffic and feeling really 'connected' to the city. And 2-3 times a week i'd take a longer way home just to get a little more enjoyment out of the commute.

My commute has been ~30 minutes each way for the last five years. Seems like a perfect distance. Previously, I had a 20+ mile commute (each way), which I did three days a week. That was not ideal.

I rotate between commuting by motorcycle, bicycle, and train. Traffic usually works out to where each option takes about the same amount of time, 40 minutes.

Just having the option of not taking the train is a relief sometimes. If it's a beautiful day out, i'll take the bicycle in and get a wonderful start to the day. If it's a little rainy or I'm wrapped up in a book, I'll take the train and get some more reading time.

Also, having an iPad has made the train much more enjoyable.

Seconded. My current commute is a choice between option A: 2*7 minutes walk plus about 10 minutes on the subway and option B: 15 minutes drive. Option A, although longer leaves me much more relaxed than B. I have yet to try option C: a bike ride.

Agreed. I usually am able to churn out a blog post or two and do coding on pet projects.

My wife is currently close enough to ride a bicycle to work. I commute to grad school ~30-45 minutes each way. When you're married you have to make certain sacrifices. I don't always enjoy it, but with a good audio book, I don't mind.

I hear you. I went from a 15 minute commute to a 4 minute commute as soon as my lease was over. I was recently considering moving even closer where I would walk 5 minutes to work. I would not drive 30 minutes to a job which paid me 50% more, and I would have to really consider one which paid me double.

Early in my career I had a job with a commute from a city suburb into a job at the heart of a major U.S. city.

When I first started that job the commute was ~45minutes to 1 hour each way. Over the years, as the city grew, the transit time started going up. Then all of a sudden, some sort of critical mass hit one year and the roads became absolutely jammed to the point that my commute was 2-3 hours each way.

I went through something like the 7 stages of grief, especially 6 or 7 months of intense "anger" then "bargaining" -- manifest as an endless trying of new routes. Even longer routes were considered more optimal if I was able to stay above 45mph for some percentage of the trip.

When I finally did get to work, I'd lock my self in my office for a couple hours, unable to get any work done, but decompressing from the commute. It killed my productivity.

The worst was the caged animal feeling. Most days I was bored out of my skull, the radio had nothing interesting to listen to, I had exhausted my music library, I started reading books on the way in. But eventually I started behaving like a prisoner stuck in solitary confinement so intense that I wasn't allowed to even stand for 6 hours a day.

The end point was not exactly stage 7 "Acceptance" but instead manifested in a Zen-like turning off of my brain while in transit. I literally could not recall a single thing along the route from my home to work. Sometimes I would arrive at work with a hot coffee in hand, no recollection of ever having picked one up.

In the end I switched jobs for one with a "mere" 1 hour commute (at highway speeds) and never looked back. It was revelatory. Immediately, accumulated stress started to drip away. Constant headaches turned into every-so-oftens, my memory started improving, my mood changed for the positive, my health started picking up.

Lots of people suggested I move in closer, or carpool, or some other method of changing things. But in the end, I didn't like any of the areas I could afford closer in, and nobody in my area carpooled to within a 30 minute walking distance to my employer.

I eventually left that job and have a 15-30 minute drive every day (depending on traffic) and wouldn't look back. I've had offers to go back to that original job at a significantly higher position than I hold now and turned them down flat (unless they had an office out my way I could work from).

I have to agree that my commute was literally killing me, and I advise lots of people not to get into a situation like that if they can help it.

Unfortunately I think this article only counts a commute if the person is driving. It may be refreshing to see the difference for people who walk, bike, or take public transit.

Personally, my bike commute makes me happier and healthier.

I either walk or take a tram (60 minutes on foot, 30 by the tram), and it's not good. I've got plenty of time to see how is this city ugly and how everything is getting only worse every year. Most of the time on the tram and walking to the stop is spent waiting at some crossing, making way to the cars (considered more important by the city), trams are old and almost falling apart, stops rather derelict, sidewalks taken as a parking lots. Well, eastern Europe at its best. Not very cheerful.

Yeah, for the commute I do semi regularly, driving (especially is peak hour) will leave me drained and feeling the effects in line with what the article is suggestion. Taking the train though lets me catch up on reading and is pretty much as good as sitting at home and reading for me as long as I miss the middle of peak hour.

It sucks for public transportation where I live.

Using the bus or train is not unequivocally good (nor bad).

I'm a lot happier since I stopped taking biking or public transit and started driving.

Of course it depends on your particular situation, but I live about three miles from the office so it's a fifteen-minute drive. If I bike, it's more like 45 minutes, I'm in constant danger of getting killed by idiot drivers, and there's a very big hill. If I catch public transport, it takes anywhere from half an hour upwards, it's filthy, often late, and I gotta share personal space with people I'd rather not share personal space with.

Nope, when you live three miles from work in a city with bad traffic, often-bad weather, and one very big hill, you're much happier if you're driving.

I walk to work but I suspect it's actually much more dangerous than driving.

It is a tradeoff between traffic risk and cardio health, particularly if the commute is a nontrivial component of your excercise regimen.

According to Freakonomics, drunk-walking is quite a bit more dangerous than drunk driving. (To the walker/driver, per mile traveled.)

I agree with this completely. My bike commute makes up a large portion of the exercise that I get and it's always nice to kill two birds with one stone.

I had a 1-1.5 hour commute when I worked in Chicago years ago and after going through that for 3 years I swore to never do it again. Since then my commute has been a 5 minute drive or 15 minute walk and its greatly improved my quality of life.

I didn't like how much of my life was being eaten away by commuting, even though it was on the train and I would use the time to listen to podcasts, music, or play games. I'd also get less sleep than I like because I'd stay up late to make up for lost time and get up early to make it to work semi-on time.

I take the metra every day. It sucks that public transit didn't work for you, but I live in the suburbs and work downtown. I think taking the train to work is probably the best way to commute, even though its a 40/45 minute train ride each way (with about a 10 minute walk on each), depending on my mood I can do a lot of work, reading, or socializing.

This is a very timely article for me. The place that I work used to have an office about a 12 minute drive from my house. It was a temporary solution (that ended up lasting over a year) and we needed to find a more permanent location. It was somehow decided that cool companies are downtown, which would make it easier to recruit and retain cool people. Well, we moved about a month ago and my commute went down the tubes.

I now have three options: 1) drive for 35-60 minutes at a cost of $27-$34 per day ($16 for gas [my camping truck was never meant to be a commuter vehicle], $11 for parking, and a new $7 toll which I can opt out of for a more congested route). 2) Buy a car with better gas mileage, which would be the same duration, but cheaper. 3) ride the bus for $5 per day.

Now the thing is, I'm very lucky. It turns out that there is an express bus from my town straight downtown to a location close to my workplace. This sounded perfect. In practice, it has been punishing. The bus ride itself takes exactly one hour. Getting to the park and ride and walking to the office adds between 15-30 minutes depending on timing. So I have upwards of 2.5-3 hours of my day lost every single day.

I've tried coding on my MBA. I've tried podcasts and music. I've tried reading my Kindle. Nothing works. This article may cite questionable research, but I can tell you from personal experience that it is absolutely true.

I commute by foot 35 minutes each way. On those days where I have to drive (very, very rare), my level of stress when I arrive home is far greater than on those days when I walk. It's really dramatic. And, if I have to drive for several days in a row (like to a conference), I really start to feel physically crappy.

I know I'm lucky, but if you have the opportunity, even for less money, I could not recommend it more.

The article states that people prefer larger houses than a small 2 bedroom apartment closer to work.

I just moved in with my girlfriend, and we chose the small 2 bedroom apartment option, with a 20-minute commute by foot for me - it makes all the difference.

We'll probably choose a house when we have children, but for childless couples, I don't see why you'd need the space (I believe people tend to accumulate too much stuff - we had to throw away or sell a lot of things!)

My 40 minute driving commute was really getting on my nerves. I then discovered books on tape on my smartphone and now it's pretty tolerable. Having a transit commute would be better though because I could read books on programming topics. There are no books on tape where the subject matter is programming that I'm aware of. It's pretty obvious it wouldn't work very well anyway. Maybe "Coders at Work" or "Mythical Man Month" would work well on tape though, since they're written in a narrative style without a lot of diagrams or code.

What about technical podcasts? If you're into Java, I'd recomment the Javaposse. I am sure there is a podcast for your line of work/passion. For a non specialized IT-Podcast I like to listen to Buzz out loud. They produce about 30 minutes every workday.

Finding enough information-dense podcasts can be difficult, and programming books on tape may not exist at all, but my occasional long commutes got much more bearable after discovering that an iPhone can read technical books out loud with text-to-speech. Turn on VoiceOver in iBooks to do it. Many O'Reilly and Pragmatic Programmers books do rely on narrative, and you can always tackle the remaining code listings later.

My last job had a commute of one hour each way on public transit (bus). I didn't notice the commute until we had lay offs. I wasn't laid off, but left within 8 months.

Now I'm a 20 minute walk to work and 2 minutes from the gym. That might be the best part of the job, even in cold Canadian winters.

I wonder if walking commutes are qualitatively different. I have about a 25 minute walk to work, technically above average, but I don't find it particularly onerous, except around Christmas as I have to cross 5th avenue. I was a little surprised that 24 is the US average, but I think the year-and-a-half I spent doing Berkeley-to-Sunnyvale colored my perceptions.

I was wondering the same thing. I find my walk (around half an hour) to be a net positive. Significantly better than my previous commutes, which were the same amount of time but by bicycle.

I'm totally spoiled, though. I've never had a car commute except for a couple of years in university.

I commute on the caltrain for 1 hour in each direction. However, I get online as soon as I get on the train and time seems to fly. I'm often amazed by how fast it feels.

The Caltrain ride does go incredibly fast. Muni is a totally different story.

I refuse to commute by car more than about 20 minutes each way. If I do have to commute I prefer a bus ride where I can at least get some dedicated reading time in.

I have an hour and a half commute each way. I take the bus for half an hour and ride my bike for about an hour. (or if I feel lazy I'll just take the bus longer)

I feel much better than when I was driving but making a 30 minute commute. Not only is the bus more interesting, it gives me time to think and read sometimes and even meet girls. Plus the excercise really gives me a boost for a full day of programming.

I agree. The total time in a commute doesn't really mean as much as the method of transportation (for me at least). I find myself usually very exhausted after a long car ride (45min+), but usually pretty refreshed after a long bus ride (45min+) because I can zone out and just relax while riding a bus. I think it also plays into psychology a little bit -- when I drive, I feel like it's almost like a "me against the world" type of situation where I usually begin to dislike every other driver on the road. When I'm riding public transportation it feels more like I'm sharing time with other people or something. I don't really know... It just feels a lot more calm.

Robert H Frank's article "How not to buy happiness" hits on commuting as well:


On the contrary. My commute is 45 minutes of biking along a river, and I love it. My metabolism is way up, and because of showers at work I can change into something less sweaty when I get in.

(Employers: showers are a cheap perk that pay off bigtime in the long run.)

I'm currently commuting from Oakland to Mountain View by car nearly daily, and it takes between 35 and 60 minutes door to door each way. I don't really mind (I enjoy driving, have a great car, and listen to music, CNBC/Bloomberg/BBC, audiobooks, etc., or make phone calls), but it would be nice to be able to drop by my office more spontaneously -- doing one roundtrip in a day is fine, but two would be horrible.

I'd prefer a 1h driving commute on interesting/high speed roads (i.e. interstates at off-peak hours, or something like HWY 17) to a 30 minute public transit commute or stop-and-go driving commute.

Interesting article that matches up with my long (driving) commute experiences. Driving well requires you to be alert and focused for that entire time, which is effort better allocated elsewhere.

I'm currently job-hunting, but recently turned down a promising interview simply because it was 50m away, with no traffic at all. I'll take a train for that same time with no regrets, but driving it? No thanks.

The reason for this is that people who like to commute don't like it at home so much, otherwise they wouldn't like to commute. They would divorce anyway and they seek out commutes (and overtime, evening meetings, dinners with clients etc) to minimize home time. People who like their family / home life will try to minimize commute and actually not commute at all. If you like your commute; analyze your relationship and find out (really digging deep and honest) why you like it; it's not a good thing for sure.

Not commuting enhances your life, gives you more time with your loved ones and time for your hobbies, while commuting, usually gives you nothing but waste. Yeah, you listen to your Spanish course; you'll learn Spanish from a good teacher in a few hours faster than months of sitting in your car.

Personally I don't understand people who commute more than 30 minutes, but that's just me. People who commute for over an hour simply have a problem with their life, goals and relationship.

Funny you mention this, because I read a popular book today "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child", that claims that being conpletely responsive to a crying/fussy baby tends to be less about creating a nurturing parental relationship, and more about hiding from one's relationship with one's spouse.

I disagree......

I work from home. :)

Congratulations on not dying, then.

So do I, since 1996, and they couldn't drag me back into commuting at gunpoint.

Exactly. If you offer me $10 million now to commute 1 year for 2 hours / day, I wouldn't do it. Life is way too short.

With $10 million, you could do something like directly save the lives of more than 10,000 children from death [http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/villager...] or stop a whole lot of tuberculosis [http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/stop-tb]. At a certain point your time is less important than what you could have done with the extra money.

Why does what I could have done with the money justify how I chose to spend the time? I see this meme occasionally nowadays, implying that it is my sad duty to become rich because of all the philanthropy I could engage in, and I don't trust it.

No offense meant; I'm sure you mean it sincerely.

No, you mistake me. While I couldn't put Singer's name to it, I'm quite familiar with his argument. But this familiar argument is subtly modified in this case: not "if you're rich you're obligated to aid", but rather "if you have the chance to become rich, then you are obligated to become rich so that you can aid". Regardless of whether that's truly your goal, and regardless of the personal cost to yourself, which is why I don't like it.

I suspect it's often used as a rationalization for becoming rich. Either way, I don't trust it.

Yeah, so you work 24/7 at 4 jobs to give 70% to charity? As your time is less important than what you can do with the extra money?

OK, I wouldn't mind separating that poor mentally handicapped person from their large amount of clearly mismanaged money. But that's not commuting, that's immense overpayment for an automotive relocation service.

I'm about to start working from home. Although my current commute is only 1.5 miles. Heavenly. :-)

I'm sure I can't be the only one who's not seriously bothered by commute. I value my time as much as the next guy, but when I'm stuck behind the wheel I listen to podcast or crank up some MP3s, and when I'm on a train I read.

My work is not in a place that is more expensive to live than where I am currently. But I live in an university town and really think this is worth the commuting. I got a comfortable car for commuting and I am usually listening to political news and humoristic podcasts that entertain me much the whole way. All in all, I think this is quite livable, even if driving brings some stress. I notice an impact on my social environment as described by the article, but I think it would be even worse if I lived near where I work. It's just not the kind of environment I'm searching right now.

Getting pretty tired of these "FOO is killing you"-articles. Salt kills, not enough salt kills, commuting kills, staying at home kills, sex kills, cucumbers kill, not enough veggies kill, blablabla.

Common sense, anyone?

> Common sense, anyone?

Sorry, that kills too. Also, medical research has been shown to cause cancer in rats.

It's a trade-off between less expensive living and more time spent commuting versus more expensive living and less time spent commuting. For all I've experienced, I'd take the extra time any day.

It's also a problem for the whole society when the sustainability of such a daily feat becomes a burning question. A dystopian view of doubling the price of oil and commuting will be not only painful but also ridiculously expensive.

Cities with a relatively good train/tram network and dense neighbourhoods grown around train stations/tram stops will be in big favor at that point.

I have to assume the article is talking about driving commute time. I take the train about 45 mintues each way, and although I wish it were less, I have a regular cadre of folks I've met over the years that I can chat with on the train ... or I can read or work or listen to music podcasts, etc. Frankly, to get to my job its the best possible way to commute and I think working at home would be worse than not working in an office (tho I can work from home and do so a few days / month).

Not if you have dozens of Mixergy interview preloaded on your iPod.

I don't know why nobody mentioned this but commuting is not killing you. When you have the feeling it's a waste of time it will kill you. Just like a job that feels like a waste of time will kill you.

Check the comments of people who are commuting by bike or by walking. Commuting that way feels like freeing your mind and exercising. That's why it doesn't feel like a waste of time. Same for the people who are programming or reading a book in the bus or train.

Commuting will not kill you. Wasting time will.

no. coding on the bus gives me 1 hour a day of pure fun. if I don't code I read a book about a new language or technology.

you can't beat that!

You are allowed to code anywhere, at anytime you are not working. The difference is you get to choose. (Which can be a bad thing!)

I have turned down a number of jobs before because of a tricky/long commute (if I can't ride there, I am not interested), which has confused a number of HR/Agents. I value my time too much (unless they are paying me 1/4* as much, but they never are. Companies that are further away from the city (I always live near the center), are usually cheap in other ways too.

I tried coding on the bus, but the roads are too bumpy. Plus, my 1 hour commute involves three different lines, so I have to pack my stuff up twice to change busses. Another downside is that my ride takes me through one of the rougher neighborhoods of my town and somehow I wouldn't feel too comfortable with my laptop on my lap in that area.

Had a 10-minute commute in Santa Clara - amazing luck! Then I moved to Iowa (long storey) and telecommute - which strangely is the same average commute. 0 minutes most days; 12 hours once a month (flying to and from Santa Clara). I'm not sure I'm better off.

The article seems to make the unstated assumption that every commute is in a car. My bike commute is one of the best parts of my day. In fact, I turned down a telecommute job so that I could continue riding to work.

so glad I live downtown... I'm a zealot for convenience in all of its forms.. and proximity to the downtown core of a metropolitan area is definitely one of them.

There's a lot of folks who live in downtown San Francisco and commute 90 minutes each way to work at Apple/Google/etc. I'd hate to do it myself, but on the other hand I'd hate to live in Cupertino or Mountain View.

Depends on the downtown.

A response to this article: http://www.dblock.org/ShowPost.aspx?id=1588

I used to commute 15 miles each way by bike. I can honestly say the commute was the best part of my job and I was in the best shape of my life.

My 3 hours of commuting 5 times a week is really bringing me down? Wow never really thought about it until I read this article.

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